American lifestyle leading to diabetes at younger and younger ages

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WHILE CURRENT wisdom holds that most people should not bother getting checked for diabetes until they turn 45, new evidence suggests that age 25 might be a better starting point. To be sure, the American Diabetes Association says that diabetes screening at such a young age is already necessary for people who are obese, since obesity is a major risk factor for the disease. But therein lies much of the rethinking. So many more people in this country are becoming overweight, even in their teens and early adulthood, that many more cases of diabetes are occurring in younger adults.

Consider that 10 years ago, the number of teenagers with so-called adult-onset (Type II) diabetes was probably only a quarter to a half of what it is today, says Gerald Bernstein, MD, president of the American Diabetes Association. The number of cases among young adults is growing dramatically, too, he says.

For that reason, it should come as no surprise that a new study conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that if people were regularly screened for diabetes at age 25 rather than 45, the lifetime incidence of blindness resulting from the disease would be reduced by 35 percent. Similarly, end-stage kidney disease brought about by diabetes would decrease by 26 percent, while foot and lower leg amputations caused by the disease would drop by 22 percent. Given that diabetes is the leading cause of sight loss, advanced kidney disease, and lower extremity amputations in the U.S., those are by no means insignificant numbers.

Currently, an average of nine to 12 years pass between the time someone gets diabetes and the time of diagnosis. That's because it generally takes that much time to develop outward symptoms. But during those "silent" years, a lot of internal damage that can eventually lead to devastating outcomes is taking place. Earlier screening--conducted with a routine blood test at the doctor's office--would cut the overall time from onset to diagnosis by nearly six years.

Earlier screening is also important because when diabetes is detected soon after it develops, lifestyle measures-without medications--can frequently be enough to keep it under control.

Foremost among those lifestyle measures is losing some excess weight. Even shedding as few as 10 pounds can help reduce high blood sugar--the hallmark of diabetes. Moderate exercise can help, too. A National Institutes of Health study has shown that even engaging regularly in brisk walking can increase the ability of the hormone insulin to get sugar out of the blood and into the body's tissues, where it's needed for energy.

Losing excess weight and engaging in regular moderate activity can also stave off diabetes. But one in four adults reports participating in no physical activity whatsoever, including walking.

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